The Cascades

Lush flowers, verdant rainforests, snowy volcanic mountains, ocean beaches.. that’s kind of been my theme for the past month or so. Well, about a week ago, I experienced a relatively significant change in scenery. My first adventure was into the South Cascades with a friend of mine from back at Cornell, where I recently finished up my undergraduate studies. We (and his dad) headed off to the beautiful, but rarely visited, twin lakes. The Cascades are most definitely aptly named – ample waterfalls cascade down the massive granite cliff faces. The mountain range is particularly interesting in that scattered among the relatively young scraggy tectonically formed ridges, are massive volcanoes including Glacier Peak and Mt. Baker. Of course, this chain of volcanoes continues down south to “The Mountain” – Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams, the decapitated Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, through Oregon all the way to Mt. Shasta and Lassen in California. While the Western side of the Cascades are wet compared to Eastern Washington, they were quite different from Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Park, where there were many more wildflowers and an entirely different set of trees. In much of the Cascades in fact, the best time of year to visit is in the fall, when the larches (evergreen like trees) turn yellow and alpine blueberry shrubs turn bright red. No, the east coast does not have a monopoly on fall colors, not by a long shot. Anyways, I was there this past week – early to mid August – and it was just about springtime! Many of the lakes and tarns were still half frozen over, and there were still many patches of snow that had yet to melt. This is rather abnormal, a result of the excessive amounts of snow the area received this past year. In fact, I even saw some crazy folks with downhill skis near the Mt. Baker lodge (the chair lifts were closed – but that didn’t stop them from hiking up the mountain just to ski down.. talk about dedication!). Anyways, speaking of spring, large vertical walls of granite, and patchy snow, here’s what I took away from the twin lakes area.


“Granite Paradise” ~ South Cascades, WA
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, polarizer, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.6 sec
Processing: I double processed the raw image file and blended the two resulting images together to balance out the foreground and lit up granite wall. The difference wasn’t strong enough to require bracketing (though I did), and my 2-stop hard GND filter was too strong.

Next I headed up north towards Mt. Baker. First I visited the north side, where you find Mt. Baker lodge and the crazy ski fanatics. This is also the home of the most photographed mountain scene in the united states – the appropriately named ‘Picture Lake’. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph anything there, as not only does the road pass the lake like at reflection lakes by Mt. Rainier, but it circumnavigates the (rather small) lake! That was simply too much for me, besides, nearly every calendar with mountain pictures has an image from here, so there wasn’t much opportunity for creative expression to be made from the paved path and boardwalk. It is a fantastic scene, with rugged and glaciated Mt. Shuksan reflecting in the lake, with a photogenic collection of trees to line the midground. Instead I hiked out to Lake Ann in hopes of capturing the still frozen lake in front of Mt. Shuksan during the clearing storm. The lake, however, was a little too frozen to be photogenic, and the storm didn’t really clear on time. But I had a delicious cup of mint tea, accompanied by some wonderfully crispy mint chocolate cookies, which helped me make it through the frigid night (I was sleeping on essentially frozen mud… in August).

Next I moved to the South side of Mt. Baker, mostly to get away from the hordes of people who come to Heather Meadows to see the beautiful mountain. Well, unlike any other mountain in the Cascades, Mt. Baker doesn’t really change all that much from the various angles you can see it from – it’s the iciest volcano in the range, and there’s glaciers everywhere, and from every angle it looks like a classic icy volcano! So 4 miles and 2,500 ft of elevation gain later I was sitting next to a half frozen tarn (small alpine lake) near the Park Butte lookout, with a cup of mint tea in one hand, my book in another, cable release on my lap, and waiting for the sun to set. As the sun dipped lower in the horizon, the clouds cleared and the mountain appeared, a truly majestic volcanic cone.


“Baker’s Elegance” ~ Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (nope, this is not national park.. it should be though)
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 28mm, 2-stop hard GND filter, polarizer (used sparingly), tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.4 sec
Processing: Burn dodge to fix the hard grad line from the filter. Converted to black and white and toned slightly blue/yellow with a curves adjustment.

This spot was so perfect that I decided to stay two nights. After a lazy morning I went out for a day hike, following the ‘railroad grade trail’ up to the climbers camp at the base of Mt. Baker. This incredibly easy trail (literally a railroad grade – very smooth), follows the cliff left by a receding glacier all the up to the base of the mountain (6,000 feet), allowing some fantastic views of the glacier from above. That leaves only 4,778 feet to go, and what appears to be a relatively straightforward route. So it’s no surprise that I counted three climbing school buses in the parking lot on my way out – this is a very popular mountain to summit. Then I returned to my camp, finished my book, and watched the sunset unfold. My gas cannister was perilously low, so no tea that evening (I did successfully manage to get enough hot water for both oatmeal and tea the next morning though!). But the sunset more than compensated for my lack or tea or book. Unfortunately the lovely snow formation I captured in the bottom left corner of the black and white image above mostly melted during the day. So I spent some time trying to find a new composition, and eventually settled on the rather untraditional composition below. In coming up with the composition I felt I needed to include some snow in the bottom left, to balance the rocks on the right (I don’t like pure reflections with nothing framing the sides or front of the image), and since my snow melted, I was forced to go wider. This had the acceptable effect of including more of that wild ‘wow’ sky, and the trees on the horizon made it an acceptable compositional choice to me, even though it has much less focus on the mountain itself compared to the previous composition. I tend to pick one composition per sunset or sunrise session, as it helps me perfect that one, and reduces the stress of running around like a madman trying to capture a bunch of different scenes, of which I’d likely only pick one anyways. So I like to make the choice in the field, and enjoy the experience while it’s happening.

“Mountain Dreaming” ~ Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
The Tech: Canon 5D, 17-40mm @ 17mm, 2-stop hard GND filter, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1.6 sec
Processing: A little burning and dodging, otherwise (beyond my usual ‘velvia’-like color enhancements I didn’t have to do much work at all on this one).

Unfortunately that’s it for this posting, though I’m sure I’ll come back to the Cascades one of these days. I’d been hoping to go to Image Lake, a pretty famous destination in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, but the road being closed and adding 12 miles of road hiking each way (on top of the normal 36 miles round trip) made that a little less desirable. So that’s still on my list of things to do up here, along with the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a few more trips in Olympic, some lakes near Mt. Rainier.. in short, I guess I’ll have to return to the Pacific Northwest another day. But for now I’m continuing on my quest for different scenery, and together with my girlfriend Ali, I will soon arrive in Banff National Park. Before crossing the border into Canada we spent the night with a friend of Ali’s, and were fed the most delicious and copious amounts of blueberries I expect I will ever encounter in my life. The border man gave us no troubles, and soon we were driving through the vast (hours long with no sign of life) expanse of dry pine forest of “Beautiful British Colombia”. Now, the British Colombians claim their province to be the ‘Best Place on Earth’, but I think they should have claimed Banff and Jasper National Parks if they really wanted that to be true though, instead they lie just across the border in Wild Rose Country, Alberta. Granted, the coastal side of BC is pretty much fantastic, but from what we saw along Canada highway 1 and 5, well, we didn’t see much! Hopefully we’ll be able to get permits for a 4-5 day backpacking trip so we can get away from the famous lodge lined lakes, and into the real mountain country – they don’t hold the annual Mountain Film Festival for nothing! Following that we’re headed to Glacier-Waterton (International Peace Park) for our 8 day trek among the grizzlies.

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2 Responses to The Cascades

  1. Weatherholtz says:

    Thank you share 🙂

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